Good mothering is about emotional choices, not physical choices


The not so hidden subtext of natural parenting is that physical choices make a mother, not emotional choices.

Specifically, natural parenting fetishizes physical proximity of mother and child. The child must spend hours trying to pass through the mother’s body (short cuts by C-section not allowed); skin to skin contact in the first hour is imagined to be critical (although there is precious little evidence to support that claim); the mother must feed her baby using her body, she must wear her baby on her body and she must sleep with her baby physically next to her in the same bed.

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In other words, human mothers are assumed to be no different than animal mothers. If it’s good for puppy, or a kitten, or a kit or a joey, it’s good for an infant.

But the truth is very different. Human beings have a much richer existence than physical needs and their fulfillment. Human connections are not based on instinct, but on emotional connection. Good mothering, therefore, is not about physical closeness, but about emotional closeness. That’s why physical choices like natural childbirth, breastfeeding, baby wearing and the family bed are completely irrelevant.

Good mothering is actively embracing the role of caretaker, confidante, educator and moral guide that mothering entails. It means worrying, planning, consulting, advising and ultimately letting go. Should he be the youngest in kindergarten or wait a year and be the oldest? How should she handle the playground teasing? Am I expecting too much from him or does he have a learning disability? Should I let her go to the dance with the older boy or is she still too vulnerable?

It is kissing the boo-boos, helping them face the fears, stepping aside and allowing them to talk to the doctor in private when they are old enough. It is piano lessons, orthodontia, religious services, holiday celebrations. It is not responding when she says “I hate you” and never failing to respond when you see him teasing another child. It is hard, damn hard, with weeks or months that leave you exhausted or emotionally drained. Yet it is also rewarding at the deepest level, forging a bond to last a lifetime, launching a happy young adult into the world.

Natural parenting advocates, therefore, are not the best parents since children don’t particularly care how their physical needs are met. Breast or bottle? The baby doesn’t care as long as she is fed. Natural childbirth? Meaningless. Baby wearing? It depends on the baby and on the mother. Extended breastfeeding? Irrelevant in the long run (and often in the short run, too).

How do we know a woman is a good mother? We know because she cares; she cares about her children and cares about the impact that she is having on those children. To love a child is to tend an emotional connection. Specific physical choices have nothing to do with love, because there are a myriad of ways to foster and emotional connection and express a mother’s love.

My fundamental objection to the philosophies that travel under the designation “natural parenting” is that they privilege physical proximity over emotional closeness. They elevate animal instincts over human connection. It might be great for ducklings, baby badgers or lion cubs, but it hardly fulfills the needs of a human infant.

That’s not surprising when you consider that natural parenting has nothing to do with what children need and everything to do with how mothers want to see themselves. Natural parenting is a boring recipe; add the right inputs, get the right outputs. Real parenting is the work of a master chef, using the ingredients available, bringing out their inherent strengths, fashioning something new, intriguing and sublime every time.

Sadly, instead of viewing mothering as a service they willingly give their children, natural parenting advocates view mothering as a social identity that they construct for themselves, boosting their own egos in the process. That’s why discussions about natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting are such a source of discord between women. None of those discussions are about the best way to mother a baby; they’re all about who is the best mother. It may seem like a trivial difference, but it is an immense difference and most women recognize it as such.

The most critical ingredient of good mothering is love. A child who is loved has the advantage over any other child, regardless of the specific parenting choices his mother made. It’s time to acknowledge and value the power of emotional connection and stop judging other women based on physical choices, which in the final analysis have little if any impact on children.